In this section, texts, images and videos are from Charles Ramble. This content will unfortunately remain in a draft state.

This section deals with the ritual for the “Summoning of good fortune” (g.yang ’gug), a ritual that is commonly peformed by Bonpos and Buddhists alike, for the benefit of both private clients and whole communities.1 The video footage of this ritual presented here is taken from two recordings. The first was made in September 2008 and the second in April 2013, on both occasions by Kemi Tsewang and Charles Ramble. The setting of the ritual was the house of Tshewang Tenzin and Palsang in the Bonpo village of Lubrak, in Nepal’s Mustang District. The priest who performed the rituals was Lama Tshultrim of Lubrak. On both occasions the ritual was performed in combination with others: on the first, a gTo nag mgo gsum (the Three Headed Man of the Black Rituals), and on the second a gTo nag mgo gsum and a Bla ’gug (Soul-retrieval). Sections dealing with these two rituals are also to be found on this website.

The concepts of g.yang and phya

A few words may be said by way of introduction about the term g.yang. Although the nature of these notions has been addressed by several writers, a particularly succinct account is given by Samten Karmay in his prelude to the Mu ye pra phud, one of the texts that is briefly presented and discussed here. The translation he proposes for the term is “quintessence of fortune”, adding that it might be combined with other terms to signify their essence, as in the compound rta g.yang: “The ‘g-yang of horse’ is not the horse itself, but the ‘super horse’, so to speak” (Karmay 2002: x–xi; see also Karmay 1998 [1975]: 149). This definition is vividly illustrated by one of the texts discussed below, in which we are told that a horse without g.yang is no different from a wild ass, and a yak without g.yang is like a ’brong, a wild yak. It is g.yang that gives these animals their ‘horseness’ and their ‘yakness’.

A term that is closely associated with g.yang is phya. As Karmay points out, this word has two meanings: ‘prognosis’ and ‘vital force’ or ‘life’ (2002: x; see also Karmay 1998 [1985]: 247, fn. 9), and that when it is combined with g.yang it is in the latter sense that it should be understood. The evidence of our texts suggests a complex relationship between phya and g.yang that deserves closer examination in the future. Even from the excerpts cited below it is clear that phya is more closely associated with humans, and g.yang with animals: phya is to humans what g.yang is to livestock, lustre is to turquoise, warmth to clothing and nutrition to food (Yab lha bdal drug, fol. 3r). But the difference is not quite as straightforward as this. There are passages (though not in the excerpts presented here) where humans, too, have g.yang, and animals—and inanimate objects—have phya. Indeed g.yang itself has phya, though it does not seem to be the case that phya has g.yang.

A final point to be made is that phya is not the same as Phywa, which designates a category of divinities. Both terms appear in our texts, but the orthography is random, and it is not always clear from the context which word is intended.

The deer in Tibetan rituals

The motif of the deer features very prominently in the texts and performances that are presented here. Magical deer of one sort or another are common in the folktales and myths of Central Asia and Europe, and there is little to be gained by establishing the kinship of the particular deer with which we are concerned here to that great herd.2 At the present stage of research, a relatively restricted range of comparisons may well be more instructive. Three studies in particular will be mentioned here.

The work in which the significance of the deer in Bonpo ritual receives the fullest treatment is Blondeau and Karmay’s “Le cerf à vaste ramure” (1985). The study is based on the text of a mdos ritual, Bon sha ba ru rgyas, but includes extensive discussion of references to the ritual in other Tibetan works, as well as a consideration of Tibetan and Himalayan cultural activities—including hunting and dance—in which deer play a central role. There is insufficient space here to pursue the numerous avenues of enquiry opened by this important work, but it is worth drawing attention to a few of the features shared by the Bon sha ba ru rgyas and the works examined here. The effigy of the deer that is constructed in the Bon sha ba ru rgyas ritual is intended as a ransom. Although no effigy is constructed for the rituals to be discussed here, in both cases different parts of the deer’s body and behaviour are enumerated and explained in terms of certain values or objects in the world that they represent, either as analogies or as the source of their manifestation. The implicit dismemberment of the deer in all the texts invites the question of whether the rituals ever entailed animal sacrifice. Blondeau and Karmay address this matter and conclude that, although later Buddhist accounts maintain that the Bonpo rite did entail blood offerings, the claim is too far in time from the alleged practice to constitute a reliable witness, and that the use of an effigy does not by itself imply substitution for a real animal. In two of the texts considered here the deer is hunted, but there is no mention of the quarry being killed and dismembered; indeed, in one of the two (Mu ye pra phud) the animal is explicitly released after its qualities have been transferred into a sheep.

A remarkable account of a sacrifice among the Gurungs of Nepal is given in Mumford’s Himalayan Dialogue (1989: 63–79). The ritual features a number of themes that leave little doubt about its conceptual relationship to the Bon sha ba ru rgyas—for example, in the relationship between the bird, the tree and the deer that is developed in both. But the fact that the two rituals reveal a shared set of cultural values does not in itself constitute evidence that the Tibetan ritual ever entailed animal sacrifice. And if the texts examined below contain themes of hunting and dismemberment, in this case too we should avoid drawing apparently obvious conclusions that may well have no foundation.

A vivid idea of the significance of deer in Tibetan oracular religion is conveyed by John Bellezza’s study of spirit-mediumship in Western Tibet, Calling Down the Gods (2005). In addition to manifesting as gods or constituting divine offerings, deer (of various species) feature extensively in oracular narratives and stories, most commonly in the context of a hunt. In the texts examined in this work deer provide the mounts for many divinities (passim, but esp. 149, fn. 140). Bellezza’s study also highlights the importance of the concept of g.yang among the spirit-mediums with whom he worked (ibid.: 53–172; see especially 146–51). One of them goes so far as to maintain “that the main purpose of spirit-mediumship is to bring g.yang (good fortune) to families afflicted with misfortune” (ibid.: 88). The penultimate section of the book is devoted to ritual texts for summoning g.yang (ibid.: 456–83).

Just as the deer provides the focus of different kinds of rituals (such as the Bon sha ba ru rgyas), it is also true that the animal may not be a necessary feature of g.yang-retrieval rites: like the mandala, it may be an organisational principle that can be applied in a variety of ritual contexts. In two of the three texts examined by Bellezza, as well as another g.yang text from eastern Tibet,3 deer are entirely absent from both the mythic narrative and the imagery of the ritual itself. Of the numerous animals that feature in the latter work, it is the sheep that is particularly associated with the g.yang. The possibility that this association may be due to the derivation of the Tibetan g.yang from the Chinese yang, meaning sheep, is well known. While the plausibility of this etymology remains a matter of discussion, the possibility of the interchangeability of the deer and the sheep in a ritual context is at least worth noting.

In the performance of the g.yanggug ritual the meat that is used to represent the body parts of the deer is mutton: the ritual requires that a sheep should have been butchered (but not sacrificed, and not necessarily for the express purpose of the ritual). When the priest’s assistant goes onto the roof to summon the g.yang from the four directions he holds in his right hand the arrow with coloured cloths and in his left the foreleg of the sheep, which he uses to gather the g.yang towards him. But the sheep leg is considered a substitute for the leg of a deer, which should be used if available. In the first of the performances recorded in Lubrak the foreleg of a musk deer was used on the first day; but Lama Tshultrim considered it a poor specimen: it had been dried and kept in the rafters of the house for a long time, and mice had gnawed it down to a few inches above the hoof. Consequently on the second day, after a sheep had been butchered, he declared that a leg of fresh mutton should be used instead.

Evidence for an association between deer and sheep among Tibet’s erstwhile neighbours is to be found in a fourteenth-century history of the Liao Dynasty (Liao Shi). A study by Linda Cooke Johnson of a mural painting in a Khitan tomb discusses the significance of a deer that features in the depiction of a marriage procession. The animal is standing next to a cart, and was assumed by the archaeologists who reported the find to be a draft animal. But the deer is too small to be used for this purpose, and its more likely function is explained by the Liao Shi. The work states that, at the time of her wedding, an imperial princess was provided with a funeral carriage for use at her future burial. Inside the carriage was a sacrificial animal described by the text as yang. As the author explains, “the term yang literally means ‘sheep’, but is often used generically as in ‘red deer’. The bones of deer, sheep and goats were all found in Liao tombs” (Johnson 126: fn. 51).4

Phywa g.yang g.yang len dgu bskor

This is the main text used by Lama Tsultrim of Lubrak in his g.yanggug performances. It is part of the Compendium, and bears the title Phywa g.yang g.yang len dgu bskor. The second g.yang of the title may or may not be superfluous, but in any event it may be glossed as “Fetching the phya and the g.yang, in nine sections”. It opens directly with an account of the miraculous appearance of a primordial deer.

Various parts of the deer’s body are transformed into objects representing the items that feature on the altar in the course of the ritual. The coherence of the components of the altar is therefore provided not by virtue of their location in an integrated mandala, but insofar as, taken together, they reconstitute the body of a deer. Each of

the texts presented here contains a similar list in which parts of the deer’s body are paired with ritual items, and these lists are presented below in tabular form for the sake of easier comparison.

Yab lha bdal drug

This work, comprising fifty folios, is entitled Srid pa yab lha bdal drug gis phya gzhung chen mo, the “Great main text of the phya ritual of Srid pa Yab lha bdal drug”. The collection, belonging to Raju of Lubrak, in which this text was discovered consists largely of works that may be original compositions of dKar ru grub dbang bsTan ’dzin rin chen (1801–1860), as well as other works that may have formed part of his library. The evidence of this figure’s autobiography reveals that he was often called on to perform g.yanggug rituals for his patrons, especially in the Himalayan regions, and it may be the text that he used in his performances. The work is actually a compilation of excerpts from a number of pre-existing writings. While this scissors-and-paste method does produce some rather jarring discontinuities, at least the provenance of some of the passages is provided. However, it is not clear if dKar ru himself was the compiler of the volume or if he was even the author of some of the unidentified sections.

In any event, the opening of the text is a great deal more elaborate than the account given in Phya g.yang g.yang len. After giving detailsed instructions for the preparation of the ritual paraphernalia, the text continues with instructions for summoning of the phya and the g.yang. Later sections of the text contain much more elaborate recitations for the acquisition of these properties.

One early passage is especially valuable inasmuch as it helps us to appreciate, by a series of well-chosen examples already mentioned in the introduction, what phya and g.yang are conceived to be. Without these qualities, the things listed would be much-diminished versions of themselves:

Now that the phya base has been laid out, chant as follows: Phya khuye! come unharmed and secure! First a base must be sought for theeternalphya. If there is no base, it is as if there were no seat beneath the officiating priest (sku gshen bon po). A base must therefore be sought for the eternal phya, a seat must be sought to place beneath the officiating priest. Next, a support must be sought for the eternal phya. If there is no support for the eternal phya, it’s as if the officiating priest had no turban on his head. A support must therefore be sought for the eternal phya; a turban must be sought for the officiating priest. Finally, requisites must be sought for the eternal phya. If the eternal phya has no requisites, it is as if the officiating priest had no beer in his throat. Requisites must therefore be sought for the eternal phya; beer must be sought for the throat of the officiating priest. Khuye, come, phya, come undefeated and stable! First, phya must be sought forhumans. If humans have no phya, how do they differ from the wild men (?) of the southern ravines?5Phya for humans must therefore be sought. Next, g.yang must be sought for horses; if horses have no g.yang, how do they differ from the wild asses of the Northern Plateau?6gYang for the horses must therefore be sought. Finally, g.yang must be sought for the yak-cows. If the yak-cows have no g.yang, how are they different from the wild yaks of the Northern Plateau? gYang must therefore be sought for the yak-cows. Khuye, come, phya! First, lustre must be sought for the one-sixth-red turquoise. If the one-sixth-red turquoise has no lustre, how does it differ from a stone? Lustre must therefore be sought for the one-sixth-red turquoise. Next, warmth must be sought for the clothing we wear. If the clothing we wear has no warmth, how does it differ from ginger-peel? Warmth must therefore be sought for the clothing we wear. And finally, nutritional content should be sought for the food that is eaten. If the food that is eaten has no nutritional content, how is it different from tawny clay? And so nutritional content must be sought for the food that is eaten. Khuye! Come undefeated and steady! Well, where shall we seek for the phya base, the g.yang base? Where shall we seek for the phya requisites and the g.yang requisites?

Here, as elsewhere in the three texts presented in this section, phya is associated particularly with humans and g.yang with animals. The response to the question posed at the end of the last part is a remarkable narrative that begins with a perfunctory cosmogony before moving rapidly on to an account of a deer hunt.

As in the case of the first text, the passage is followed by a list of the transformations of different parts of the deer’s body into the various components of the altar arrangement.

Mu ye pra phud

In 2002 Samten Karmay published a collection of eight Bonpo works from Dolpo under the title The Call of the Blue Cuckoo. The second item in the collection is the text for a g.yang-summoning ritual, entitled simply Mu ye pra phud phya’i mthar thug, “The Ultimate Phya; the Celestial Head-Ornament”7 (Karmay 2002: 35–90). In this text, too, it is the body of a deer that provides the organisational motif for the altar. At a first glance, Yab lha bdal drug and Mu ye pra phud appear to be versions of the same text. A closer examination, however, reveals that, in spite of certain structural similarities, there are substantial differences between the two.

A valuable discussion of this work, along with an English translation of the opening charter myth and the corresponding edited text, is provided in John Bellezza’s Calling Down the Gods (2005: 472–83), and the following presentation of the story may therefore be confined to a summary of the points of main relevance to the present article. For the citations given in this outline we have given our own English renderings, rather than Bellezza’s, simply for the sake of consistency with the other translations given here.

Following a brief cosmogonic introduction the scene shifts to the land of Phywa yul snang ldan where there stands a castle, Rin chen mdzes pa. The king of the Phywa gods convokes the phya gsas divinities and announces that the great Phywa Yab lha bdal drug is bereft of a phya base (phya gzhi). Srid pa Sangs po explains that the absence of Yab lha’s phya base is due to demonic activity that resulted in the dispersal of the five Srid pa gods (srid pa’i lha lnga), leaving a vacancy that has been occupied by demons. A volunteer to seek for the missing base is found in Prince sGam po, the son of ’Od de gung rgyal and Phywa lcam lo ma. The prince rides to the summit of Mt Meru where he meets gNam phyi gung rgyal, who indicates where he can find what he is seeking: “To the north of Mt Meru, where we are, in the centre of the turquoise lake Mer ba (“the Brimming”) is gYung drung brag gu zur bzhi, the “Eternal Four-sided Little Crag”. On top of gYung drung brag gu are a stag, gNam sha ru ring (“Long-antlered Sky Deer”) and a hind, dMu sha yu mo. The son they produced (sprul) is named Dung sha shel ru (“Conch-shell Deer with Crystal Antlers”). It is from him that you should make the eternal phya base”.8 The prince duly goes to the designated location, where he meets the deer. The deer explains “in clear human speech” that its father is a manifestation of the god gNam lha dkar po and its mother a manifestation of dMu btsan rgyal mo, and that the lha-lake and the dmu-crag are respectively its soul lake and soul-mountain. The prince explains the situation and asks the deer to accompany him and become the phya- and g.yang-base for Yab lha bdal drug, lord of the Phywa. The deer eventually acquiesces. They set off together and reach the land of the Phywa, where the Prince presents the deer to Yab lha bdal drug, who is duly delighted. He gives the deer exactly the lavish treatment promised by the prince, and summons the phya. The text continues by itemising the correspondence between various rituals items and the body-parts of the deer.

The general structure of the narrative is broadly similar to that seen in Yab lha bdal drug: a cosmogonic account, followed by a palatial setting in which the protagonists are concerned by the loss of the main priest’s phya. The loss has resulted in a general reduction in the quality of life, and must be restored. The figure who accomplishes this is a heroic youth, who dons the appropriate apparel and sets off on his horse in quest of the material for the phya. The hunter’s quarry is a deer that he successfully captures and that agrees to act as the basis for the phya that is to be retrieved. There are, nevertheless, significant differences.

If the textual evidence is taken at face value, it must be concluded that the three works under consideration are not directly related, but represent three witnesses connected through a probably complex stemma of lost or undiscovered hyparchetypes. This in turn suggests that the dismembered deer is—or was—a very common motif, at least in Mustang and Dolpo and at least in the context of g.yang-retrieval rituals. In all probability, however, we are faced with a situation in which the scribes of our texts were not attempting to be faithful copyists but may have been actively composing new works. The fact that the names of places and protagonists are systematically different is almost suspicious: might this be a case of one—or both—of the authors reaching into the well-stocked reservoir of epic Bonpo names to create a superficially distinctive cast of heroes and settings for a patented variant of the ritual?

But this perspective leads us to the same conclusion: that the topos of the hunted and dismembered deer was a well-established, culturally sanctioned template on which new combinations of elements might be arranged.

Transliterated texts

Since the text of Mu ye pra phud has been published—both in facsimile and a retypeddbu can version (Karmay 2002: 35–90) as well as, substantially, in roman transliteration (Bellezza 2005: 479–83)—it is not be reproduced here.

Note on transliteration

The transliterated text is presented without any attempt to amend orthographic irregularities. Contracted forms (bsdus yig) are transcribed in a form resembling them as closely as possible, followed by an expanded form in brackets. The smaller cursive hand in which the text gives instructions related to the performance of the ritual is represented by italics.

The normal shad is represented by the oblique stroke (/), the broken shad that corresponds to a “ditto” mark to signify a refrain is indicated by the symbol =.

Works in Tibetan

Pha mtshun sgra bla’i g.yang skyobs ’dod dgu char ’bebs bsam pa don grub; 31 folios, dbu med ms. Photocopy.

Phywa g.yang g.yang len

Phywa g.yang g.yang len dgu bskor bzhugs-s+ho; 32 folios, dbu med ms. Privately-owned manuscript in Lubrak, Mustang.

Mu ye pra phud

Mu ye pra phud phya’i mthar thug bzhugs s+ho; 36 folios, dbu med ms, transcribed in dbu can (Karmay 2002: 35–90).

Yab lha bdal drug

Srid pa yab lha bdal drug gis phya gzhung chen mo gzhugs-s+ho; 50 folios, dbu med ms. Privately-owned manuscript in Lubrak, Mustang.

Works in other languages

Bellezza, J.V. 2005. Calling Down the Gods: Spirit-Mediums, Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Upper Tibet. Leiden: Brill.

Blondeau, A.-M. and S. Karmay, 1988–1995. “Le cerf à la vaste ramure”: en guise d’introduction. In A.-M. Blondeau and K. Schipper (eds) Essais sur le rituel: colloque du centenaire de la section des sciences religieuses de l’École pratique des hautes études, vol. 1. Louvain /Paris: Peeters, 119–46.

Hummel, S. 1998. The wonderful deer in the Ge-sar Epic. In Eurasian Mythology in the Tibetan Epic of Gesar. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 53–56.

Johnson, L.C. 1983, The wedding ceremony for an Imperial Liao princess. Wall paintings from a Liao Dynasty tomb in Jilin. Artibus Asiae, 44(2 /3), 107–36.

Karmay, S. 1998[1986]. The appearance of the little Black-Headed Man. In The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, 245–81.

Karmay, S. 1998[1975]. A general introduction to the history and doctrines of Bon. In The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, 104–56.

Karmay, S and Y. Nagano (eds) 2002. The Call of the Blue Cuckoo: an Anthology of Nine Bonpo Texts of Myths and Rituals. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.


Pasar Tsultrim Tenzin, Changru Tritsuk Namdak Nyima and Gatsa Lodroe Rabsal, 2008. A Lexicon of Zhangzhung and Bonpo Terms. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.

Mumford, S. R. 1989. Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Robin, F. in collaboration with Klu rgyal tshe ring (trans. and ed.) 2011 [2005]. Les contes facétieux du cadavre(Mi ro rtse sgrung). Paris: Langues et Mondes—l’Asiathèque.

von Sicard, H. 1971. Der wunderbare Hirsch. Acta Ethnographica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 20(3–4), 231–86.

Stein, R.A. 1971. Du récit au rituel dans les manuscrits tibétains de Touen-houang.In A. Macdonald (ed.) Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou. Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 479–547.

1An extended version of this introduction is to be found in Ramble (forthcoming) “The deer as a structuring principle in certain Bonpo rituals: a comparison of three texts for the acquisition of good fortune (g.yang)”.

2For a survey of the distribution and variants of this motif see, for example, Harald von Sicard’s “Der wunderbare Hirsch” (1971).

3Pha mtshun sgra bla’i g.yang skyobs ’dod dgu char ’bebs bsam pa don grub. We are grateful to Dangsong Namgyal for showing us this work.

4We are indebted to Berthe Jansen for drawing our attention to this work. Whatever the funeral associations of the deer may be, it is worth noting that the dialogue between the hunter and his coy quarry in Mu ye pra phud is somewhat reminiscent of the formal discourses that mark the confrontations between the parties of the groom and the bride in Tibetan pre-nuptial ceremonies.

5lho rong gis mo’; the context suggests that the unfamiliar term mo’ may correspond to something like mi’u.

6On the theme of the separation of the horse from the wild ass, see for example Stein 1971: 485–91.

7Mu ye and pra phud are Zhang zhung terms that the Lexicon glosses respectively by Tibetan nam mkha’and dbu rgyan zhig.

8The image of a lake shore with three deer, of which one is the rightful quarry of the hero, also features in Gesar (Hummel 1998: 54).